Fake News isn’t the Problem – Our Limited Attention Span is

Everybody’s obsessed at the moment with the issue of fake news – why is there so much of it and what can be done to tackle it?

The question, though, is what constitutes fake news? The most obvious definition, surely, is false reporting – anything that contains lies, omissions or embellishments in order to present a story that is not completely factually accurate. If we were to use the common courtroom oath, anything that is not “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” could be considered fake news.

By that definition, though, almost all news could be branded fake. Bias is rife among news sites – left-wing or right-wing bias quite commonly results in the same story being reported quite differently by two different news sites, each of which will focus on presenting the points that favour their own argument, and ignoring those that don’t. A recent example was when the actor Morgan Freeman made a number of remarks about the Trump presidency in an interview – the right-wing news site Breitbart reported the comments under the headline “Trump a winner, I hope will be ‘good president’” while left-wing news site The Hill ran the story under the headline “Morgan Freeman on Trump: It feels like we are jumping off a cliff”. The below screenshot shows a selection of the other headlines that were used to report the story.   None of these reports were strictly untrue – each site simply chose to focus on the quotes that reinforced the message they felt would appeal to their readers.


And this is where we come to the real problem. While the headlines may have differed, most of the news articles actually reported Freeman’s comments in full – simply reporting the comments that favoured their argument first, and the remaining comments further down.   Understanding that the majority of readers don’t read beyond the headline and the first couple of paragraphs, they were able to present the story in a way that would support their headline, without any need for omissions.

This was a fairly innocuous example, but a far more common approach is to use a headline that completely misrepresents the underlying story, in the knowledge that readers will open the link to the story based on the lure of the headline. A recent example was the online site reason.com which ran a story under the headline “Refugee rape mobs on New Year’s Eve were a hoax, say German police”.   Anybody seeing that headline would assume that the story related to the reports of sexual assaults taking place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015. However, reading the story revealed it was referring to a mostly unreported incident in Frankfurt in 2016.   The story was shared on Facebook and a large number of users commented on it, clearly not having read the story properly, not having noticed the distinction between Cologne 2015 and Frankfurt 2016, and having come to the conclusion that the reports of the Cologne attacks were completely fabricated.

In our modern news-hungry, iphone and tablet-obsessed, limited-attention-span world, headlines are key. As we scroll through our myriad news feeds, anything that doesn’t catch our attention gets bypassed completely – and when a headline does catch our attention, we will open up the link and either read the first few paragraphs or watch the first 30 seconds, in the case of a video, often making a judgement about the story based on that small sample alone, and in many cases missing crucial information which appears further down the article and which, were we to read it, would leave us with a completely different impression.

This is both a challenge to serious journalists keen to put across a balanced story, and a gift to less scrupulous advertising executives simply keen to generate website traffic via click-bait headlines.   Because that is what click-bait is about – it’s not about reporting serious news stories; it’s simply about encouraging people to click onto a link to your site so that you can attract advertisers based on the high volume of traffic that your site generates.   That is why tabloids such as the Daily Mail and the Express use such sensationalist headlines – and why clicking onto a link to one of their stories invariably rewards you with a barrage of advertisements.

If we really want to counter ‘fake news’ the responsibility lies with us, to take the time to actually read articles in full before forming an opinion about an issue, rather than forming our opinions based on a headline and a couple of paragraphs. Cross-checking stories against other news sites is also key – along with understanding the concept of single-sourcing. Particularly with regards foreign news, reductions in news budgets have meant that most news agencies don’t have journalists on the ground when a big news story breaks, and so they rely on journalists from other agencies who are already on the ground. So a story will be reported initially by Reuters, for example, and then the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and others will report the same story, quoting Reuters as their source. This doesn’t mean the story is fake – it simply means that only one side of the story is being presented, and it may be that there is another side which is not being reported.

We also need to learn to be more discerning in what we read – pick a story that looks interesting and read it in full before moving on to the next, rather than trying to take in a little bit of every story. We all long to appear informed about every issue, but isn’t it actually better to know a lot about a few issues, and admit we know virtually nothing about others, than to know a tiny bit about everything and then use that paltry knowledge to fake a greater understanding than we actually have? No wonder we are all falling out with each other – if we form our opinions based on a brief impression formed from one news article, then actively search out other stories that reinforce that impression, is it any wonder we end up with such diametrically opposing views?   Isn’t it time to admit that most of us know far less than we pretend to, about the various issues that dominate debate, and actually take the time to understand our opponents’ viewpoints? Fake news is not going to go away – but if we take the time to actually interrogate what we are reading, it will surely lose the power to divide us as it does currently.

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